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The Death And Rebirth Of Live Music

I don’t usually do the Op-Ed sort of thing, but a few articles came out recently that inspired me to write this one.

I was born and raised in Philadelphia — a city once known for its live music the way New Orleans is. No longer is this the case. But its not like live music just shut down and stopped existing. So what happened?

In the never ending quest to maximize profits and minimize losses, venues started banking on their reputations more than the reputations of the musicians that performed there. Understand that as venues in the 70s and 80s became known for bringing in great musical talent, the reputation of the venues would grow. Makes sense. Eventually many venues started achieving a brand status that musicians coveted. These venues started to realize that they could get musicians to perform at lower rates because the venue offered that word we’ve all come to love and loathe: EXPOSURE.

A chain reaction began: as the going rates for musicians lowered, the seasoned musicians opted out of performing. The local favorites might still do the gig, but the headliner acts would decline. Which really would not have been all that bad. Except that’s only the first square to tumble down this game of dominos.

Venues can charge more to enjoy a great, big name act. This doesn’t include just the door charge — it also includes the food and bar. It also means the venue has higher equity because the turn out was predictably higher. As the drawing power of the musical act declined, these things declined as well. Which means that in the effort to preserve maximum profit and minimal losses, other corners must be cut! Things like promotion, maintenance of equipment, and the pay for the sound board operator started declining.

Here is where domino number two falls. Many sound engineers back in the day, particularly at well known venues, were fully professional touring sound guys. The venue gigs were really just to fill in the spaces in between tours. Without proper pay most of the veteran sound engineers did not feel any incentive to continue working at venues (a few even began hosting shows in their own homes, but I’ll get to that later). Equipment broke, as it does, and was replaced with cheaper equipment. Now there’s less experienced sound guys with equipment that just isn’t spectacular. Couple that with less promotion, and over time, the live music venture seems less appealing.

Management and ownership changes over as it naturally does. The new guard is handed a venue with a declining live music venture. At the same time, the DJ starts to become more popular. As the musicians become less experienced with less draw, the sound engineers become greener, the namesake for the venue becomes less and less about live music and eventually hits a tipping point. The live music is actually turning customers away, or at the very least becoming a low-profit burden for the management. DJs are looking more appealing.

We see a brief era of where the DJ reigns supreme. And as DJs start gaining popularity, they start earning their own followings! Next thing you know, the DJs are charging MORE than the live bands. Oops. Once again the venue is unable to afford the good DJs, and left with the amateurs. Who ultimately annoy the customers. Its almost better just to run an iTunes playlist through the house system and call it a day. Which many venues today do.

The end result is a degraded culture of live music. Amateur bands and DJs coupled with lousy sound make for a culture of people who are either into full party mode or would probably prefer a quiet night out. The problem is that musicians and venue owners keep perpetuating this by continually lowering their expectations. Mainly the expectation of being paid and paying a decent amount, respectively. You know things have hit rock bottom when venues expect musicians to bring out the entirety of the audience. If 100% of the audience is there for the band and the venue takes 0% of the promotional responsibilities — the only thing the venue is worth, at all, is the space. Hence the remarkable rise of the house show here in Philly. Bands are making more money playing basement gigs than at legit venues.

So, how do we turn it around? As a musician, understand that there are many opportunities to make a living. There’s no need to settle for subpar payment from a venue. It would possibly be ok to do it for the love of performing, except the venue will also assuredly treat you like crap. It’s thankless, the exposure is only to your own fans through a piss poor sound system, and the money made doesn’t equate to a minimum wage job. Why do it?

As long as you keep settling, venues will see no need to do any better. This not only hurts you, but the venues, and all of live music culture. Settling is what keeps the expectations low. Make the venues pay for a quality act. This will make them become selective about whom they hire. And in that simple sentence you can see how it immediately reverses the trend.

As an aside, I feel that this concept of not settling extends to all avenues of revenue. It’s not enough just to receive royalties when your music is licensed to a TV show. Don’t think for a second that if someone can’t pay your composer’s fee to score an indie film that they’ll just “find someone else.” The three people who can do it as well as you for the rate you charge live in “Nophone, Nowhereville”, “Overbooked, Cantdoitnow City”, and “Unreliable, East Mightnotshowup”. Let them settle next time.

What have your own experiences been with this? Let us know with a comment .

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.


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  • Sunrise Review

    I’ve experienced the decline of venues. It’s not a new thing, and even applies to just about any industry who fail to take responsibility for themselves. The “exposure” myth is pervasive in the live industry as well as the film, tv and radio world. In fact getting over it is one of the points Fair Trade Music makes in getting it’s message out to fans. You’ve done a great job of discussing it in this post. Check out http://www.fairtrademusicpdx.org for more about efforts to support venues that don’t fall into this backslide.

  • Seth Balmore

    The truth is musicians don’t need venues anymore because they don’t actually do anything other than reap the benefits of having live music. The artists aren’t paid and the show isn’t promoted. It’s just too hard for many bands to find a suitable space and/or afford a professional PA system (granted, many venues I’ve played in don’t even have a “professional” PA). Furthermore, the community isn’t really there anymore. When Nirvana and Green Day were on the front of every magazine it was pretty easy to 20 or 30 kids to come out and see a rock band. These days live music isn’t even cool.

  • Mykal Garneau

    I’m an aging old picker who’s been at it for 50 years or more….. That’s right! Street corners, after ski lounges, summer resorts, here and there….. several different bands….. and I still like to play with other musicians at open jam nights or small gatherings in private homes or even round the fire in my own yard and all the way back to coffee houses where finger snapping was deemed applause. I’ve watched the entire transition from playing for the “tip jar” to the pittance that musicians are given for a night’s work. Some may say that the performers are doing it because they love to do it (which is TRUE) and it is the ONLY reason we buy $$pricey instruments, and amplification, and in the current trend, one can avail themselves of entire back up bands on tape so that one performer can fashion an evening’s entertainment all by themselves. Those who practice their craft are obvious because they sound polished, professional and surprisingly GOOD…… but it’s NOT the same feeling……. seeing 5 pieces up on a stage playing polished and well rehearsed sets of popular and classic tunes has become an evening at a LARGE venue instead of listening to your favorite BAND at a local watering hole. Anyway you break it down, the musician loses….. Performers will NEVER recoup the cost of equipment, the backing tracks, travel, practice time, demo’s, MORE equipment, The rich get richer, the owners benefit from sales and the PITTANCE they pay for entertainment never justifies the work it takes to GET there! Appreciative listeners are a tremendous reward but THANK YOU and a couple dollars isn’t going to feed your family!

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